30th Anniversary: Driving Memories

When I started my law enforcement career about the same time that Police was launched in 1976, cop cars were changing. It was the era of the oil embargo and the gas shortages, so the engines in patrol vehicles started to get a lot smaller.

When I started my law enforcement career about the same time that Police was launched in 1976, cop cars were changing. It was the era of the oil embargo and the gas shortages, so the engines in patrol vehicles started to get a lot smaller.

And I hated it.

Gone were the big cars with big interceptor engines. The new police cars that were coming on line when I first strapped on a duty belt were an administrator’s wet dream. They were less expensive to purchase. They were less expensive to insure. And they were a lot less expensive to operate than the good old-fashioned Detroit iron that the public associated with cop cars. Oh, yeah. They were also a lot less fun to drive.

When I was a kid, patrol cars were patrol cars. Officers in the ’60s drove big Plymouths with 440 interceptor engines in them. And when I first decided that I was going to be a cop, one of the things that drew me to the job was being able to drive high-performance cars at high speed. I mean I wanted to serve the public and fight crime. But man, I really loved those big, powerful police cars that roamed our Texas highways and byways.

Here’s the punchline. When I first went on patrol, it wasn’t in one of those high-powered units of my youthful daydreams. No, not quite. My first patrol car was so tame my grandma would have loved it.

There I was, a 19-year-old car enthusiast, graduating from his MP training and going to his first assignment and expecting some serious automotive muscle. So you can imagine the look on my face when the Army in its infinite wisdom put me in a Plymouth Valiant with a 225-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine. My first days of driving a cop car were not what I had imagined at all.

Fortunately, I soon got to drive one that was closer to my dreams. My next unit was an older Ford Custom 500 with a 352. We nicknamed it “the battle wagon,” since it had plenty of power and neither power steering nor power brakes to leech that power. I loved that car.

It was the last true high-performance police car that I would patrol in for some time.

Spartan Sedans

For the next couple of years, the pattern was set: smaller cars with mid-size engines. Ford was selling the LTD II; Chevy had the Malibu and then the Nova, both with 350s; and Chrysler had the Valiant and the Fury with a variety of engines up to the 360. A few years later, Chrysler introduced the Plymouth Volare/Dodge Aspen with 318 and 360 engines.

The most remarkable thing about these cars when you compare them to today’s police vehicle is that they were really spartan. They had smooth vinyl bench seats, no air conditioning, no radio for entertainment, and no other fancy options. You even had to manually lock and unlock the doors and manually roll the windows up and down.

Those cars were dull and uncomfortable. But the worst thing about them was those damned bench seats.

I remember one technique we developed during driving training. We were using Dodge Diplomats with bench seats and, if you drove them fast, you had a lot of trouble staying in the driver’s seat. So we always got in with the seat a little further back than we needed, buckled the seat belt, and then slid the seat forward to the proper position. This made the seatbelt tighter, so you could stay in place on the track.

That’s what we did in training, but that trick would have never worked in a real pursuit. We didn’t have enough time to make the adjustment. So we just had to hang on. Fortunately, the car manufacturers soon saw the error of their ways and provided us with bucket seats.

Not everything about the cars from this era was inferior to today’s patrol cars. My early ’80s Ford unit was really maneuverable and one of the things that made it such a blast to drive was that it had a parking break that would not stay down if the tranmission was in gear.

We used this feature for a quick turnaround we called the bootlegger’s turn. If you were going in one direction, you could apply the parking brake by stepping on its foot pedal, and it would lock the rear wheels up. If you turned the steering wheel, the car’s back end would break loose and spin around. When you were turned around, you would take your foot off the parking brake, which would then release. You now had all four wheels holding traction, and you could give it gas to go the other way. That was a lot of fun.

Gas Crisis Cars

Unfortunately, administrators don’t like fun cars. And in the 1980s, they especially hated them. The country was in recession, gas prices were high, inflation was high, and cop cars got a lot smaller and wimpier.

By 1983, there were no more 440 interceptors being made and more of the Chryslers were made with 318s than any other engine. Chevy equipped its cars with the 350 and Ford used a 351.

Fuel efficiency was the marching order for designers and engineers of cop cars. Some administrators even started buying four-cylinder cars for in-town policing. Chrysler sold a police package of the “K” car (Dodge Aries), Chevrolet sold a Celebrity patrol car, and Ford sold the Fairmont in a police version. I still cringe at the thought of these things being called cop cars.

I and a lot of my fellow officers and even some administrators found the idea of four-cylinder patrol cars ludicrous. They were way too wimpy to get the job done. And fortunately, the car companies realized that the Aries K and its underpowered cousins needed some backup, so real patrol cars still rolled off the assembly lines.

Ford made the LTD II; Chrysler, the Dodge Diplomat, and the Gran Fury under the Plymouth nameplate; Chevrolet, the Impala and then the Caprice. They were all good police cars.

You see, what happened is that the car companies realized that they could make fuel-efficient cars that also had some power. To manage this feat, the engineers starting using electronically controlled fuel injection.

It was also about this same time that both car manufacturers and police administrators started to realize the importance of making police cars more comfortable. Patrol cars started being sold with bucket seats and electric windows and doors. More cars came with entertainment radios and deleting it was the option instead of adding one. Unfortunately, some agencies didn’t believe officers should have entertainment radios. They didn’t prohibit them. They just wouldn’t buy them. So I carried a radio in my briefcase to install in the dash when I was on duty and took it home with me after my shift.[PAGEBREAK]
Killer Whale

In 1989, Chrysler left the pursuit-rated police vehicle market. That left the Ford Crown Victoria and Chevrolet Caprice Classic as the main competitors. Cops liked both cars. But me, I was a Chevy man.

I particularly loved my 1992 Caprice Classic. It had a rounder body style than the previous Caprice and at first a lot of us didn’t like it. It was big and kind of weird looking, and some guy in my department started calling it “Shamu.”

Despite the criticism of its looks, the 1992 Caprice turned out to be a good patrol car. I had one unit assigned to me that I named “Old Faithful” since it never let me down. In one chase, it was perfect all the way to when we stopped and I bailed out. When I got back in, the brake pedal went to the floor, and I had to call a tow truck to get back to the station. But in the chase, my Shamu handled well, had plenty of power, and it stopped when I needed it to. You really can’t ask much more of a pursuit car.

My Caprice had anti-lock brakes and a driver’s side airbag. That doesn’t sound revolutionary now, but at the time it was a major breakthrough.

And many of you probably remember that retraining officers to drive with anti-lock brakes was a real feat for some agencies. On the one-mile driving course used at my agency, my lap times went up by about five seconds when we went to anti-lock brakes. After we learned to just hold the pedal down instead of the decades-old habit of pumping the brakes to avoid a skid, our lap times came back down again.

As for the airbags, I became real happy with this feature about two years later, when a drunk driver crash tested my patrol car for me, with me in it. Believe me, air bags and seat belts do save lives.

My Shamu had one other new feature. It was the first car I ever drove with child safety locks that disconnected the back door handles on the inside. Our other cars just had inside rear door handles that didn’t work. We didn’t have to flip a switch to disconnect them. They just didn’t work. Anyway, no one told us about the child safety locks. So one officer I worked with found out about this feature the hard way. His prisoner jumped from his car while he was driving down the highway to jail.

Fuel to Burn

Like a lot of cops, I’m really not fond of front-wheel-drive cars for police work. I think my attitudes about this were largely cemented in the early ’90s when Ford and Chevy introduced Taurus and Lumina police cars.

Neither car caught on with the market, partly because of the cost of retraining drivers and partly because neither the Taurus nor the Lumina was powerful enough or durable enough to make a good pursuit vehicle. I forget how many times I have taken patrol cars places they were never meant to be, like across medians and drainage ditches. These front-wheel-drive models just weren’t strong enough for this type of patrol abuse.

But if it was horsepower that you wanted in the mid-’90s, you could have it. After all, gas was cheap and we had plenty of it to burn. In 1994, Chevrolet installed the LT-1 engine from the Corvette into some of its Caprice Classic patrol cars and Ford retuned its engine to get a little more power also. Being the average cop, I did compare my issued 92 to a friend’s 94. With his engine, he could pull away from me no matter what I did. I think his car ended up with about 10 more mph on top end than I had.

Unfortunately, the Caprice Classic didn’t have long to live. General Motors saw a change in the U.S. car market and started switching to small cars with front-wheel drive and larger SUVs and pickup trucks. To get the manufacturing capability it needed to produce more of these popular civilian vehicles, Chevy did away with its large rear-wheel-drive sedans, which meant that the Caprice Classic was not sold after 1996.

Ford Takes the Lead

The demise of the Caprice Classic left Ford in possession of the police car market as the sole supplier of a full-size sedan with rear-wheel drive. Today, Ford still dominates America’s police fleets. But both Chevy and Chrysler are trying to regain their law enforcement market.

Chevy introduced its new Impala in 2000 and included police work as part of its initial design specs. The car was fairly well received by the police market, even though it was front-wheel drive and only had a V-6. A friend of mine is driving one of these now and he likes it. His only comment is that it is much harder to put a prisoner in the back seat, especially a big prisoner.

Chrysler re-entered the police market in 2002 with a patrol version of the Dodge Intrepid. The Intrepid failed as a police car, mostly because of reported brake problems.

While Chevy and Chrysler tried to grab some of Ford’s police market share, Ford didn’t sit on its butt. Its designers and engineers constantly improved the Crown Victoria. Reported brake life and handling problems were fixed, and the body redesigned in 1998. When the Crown Vic was redesigned, the engine only generated 235 horsepower. Over the past few years, this has been increased up to 255 horsepower, and Ford now offers it with a choice of rear-end ratios for better highway speed or better acceleration. Ford also made several modifications to the Crown Vic to reduce the risk of gas tank rupture and catastrophic fire resulting from a rear-end collision at highway speeds.

Today and Tomorrow

Today, the Big 3 American car companies are battling for the police market. Chrysler even introduced two rear-wheel drive patrol cars, the Dodge Charger and the Dodge Magnum. Both of these vehicles are offered with a 250-horse V-6 engine as standard, but they also have an optional 345-cubic-inch (5.7 liter) Hemi V-8 that produces 340 horses.

So we are getting back to more powerful cars for patrol use. What will the future hold for us? I am not a fortune-teller, but I can’t wait to see if Toyota decides to market a police version of the Avalon. It is front-wheel drive, but Toyota is now the number one car manufacturer in the world, it's running in NASCAR, and I believe it will pursue the American police market with Avalons assembled in its U.S. plants. How the other manufacturers respond to that challenge will be interesting.

Steve Rothstein has worked patrol for the U.S. Army Military Police, San Antonio PD, and the Luling (Texas) PD. He is now the training coordinator for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

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